The Aftermath…A team and an institution in complete disarray.
Another embarrassment for United against their arch rivals to compound the humiliation further and make it a 9–0 on aggregate home and away. Thank God this wasn’t a Champions League tie or else this would have been too much to take in the span of two weeks.
There’s no point in trying to dissect the performance and the tactics and frankly, there isn’t much to talk about. However, when I reviewed Liverpool’s first goal back a few times something hit me. It was not a first time realization. It’s something I’ve already talked about several times before earlier in 2021 and early this season. It’s something that all United players suffer from.
Bad football habits.
What does that mean?
Well when analyzing/scouting players, you are in fact describing their habits on a football pitch whether good or bad. For instance, Rashford’s runs in behind a backline, that’s a habit that Rashford developed over the course of his career. His knuckleball shot that he tries on freekicks to imitate Cristiano Ronaldo. Also, His bad habit of not tracking back because he wants to utilize his pace on the counter.
Another example is Fernandes’ bad habit of pressing on his own without being wary of the passing lanes he is opening/closing. But also, Fernandes first time quality balls in the final third and second striker instinct which helps him rack up the number of assists and goals.
These examples can be labelled as traits or you can just call them habits. After knocking out Liverpool last year from the FA Cup and equaling a PL record vs Southampton, Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær said the following:
When asked what lessons were learned since the win over Liverpool, Solskjær responded: “It’s about doing the right things, creating good habits every day on the training pitch, keep repeating stuff. “Against Southampton we practiced a lot of our attacking against 10 men, deep block and after scoring one or two you can drop your shoulders and enjoy it, the result is there for you, learned it and moved on.”
On how he can keep momentum going at Man Utd, Solskjær continued: “Just keep doing the right things, keep doing the right habits. football is strange, so funny, it will flip on a decision or an incident.”
Solskjær insisted and iterated that United players needed to keep and maintain the good habits that they are developing. Yesterday the way United conceded the first goal, I saw something that made those words ring in my head. Take a look at Nemanja Matić in the picture below:
What clicked in my head is the way Matić committed way too high leaving acres of space behind him for Mane to exploit. Then the second thing was — and I forgot to highlight this— Elanga completely let TAA and Salah play a 1–2 pass around Dalot without bothering to track or put in a tackle. In the first frame, Elanga was right on TAA but he was labored in his efforts.
This is where it clicked. All United players are developing bad habits due to the chaos around them and the players they play with. I will not say structure or system. Tactics are fairly simple if the players know their jobs and have the traits (habits) to carry out their jobs.
Let’s not take it from Solskjær since he is a “low level out of his depth PE teacher”. Let’s take it from Guardiola:
“There are incredible managers, they don’t have these players, they don’t have these big clubs. I’m a good manager but not the best. Give me a team that is not like Manchester City and doesn’t have these players, I am not going to win,” Guardiola said.
In several press conferences, Guardiola was adamant that he does nothing special. It was all the quality of the players they buy, the money city is able to spend and the patience and support they have given him.
Quality of players — as previously mentioned — can be narrowed down to the habits they picked up and developed as they play football at youth level and in the early stages of their careers — early 20s.
Guardiola went on further to emphasize this point by saying:
“Absolutely. I said many times and all the managers at top clubs would agree playing every three days we don’t have training. I don’t feel like on the pitch we can develop because we don’t have time,” Guardiola began.
“The only reason is the quality of the players that we have, that can change some ideas immediately because they are intelligent and good,” Guardiola proclaimed.
“There are no more secrets to success. You can win something important for one year but to win consistently the only secret is to have quality players.”
I spoke to 2 professional coaches that currently work in the MLS and the CSL and both iterated something similar. They said and I am paraphrasing:
“At professional level, coaches simply don’t have the time to work on individual skills no more. Schedules are cramped and big team are usually in multiple competitions. Even in pre-seasons, they work on few basic structures and ideas due to the extra time they have together but there’s hardly 1v1 training within the main training sessions. Our job is to put in a system that maximizes the talents of the players.”
I asked what about Guardiola for example, I am sure he improves players individually, right?
Both said something very similar:
“Not exactly how it is portrayed. Guardiola will pick up on a habit that he doesn’t like in a player he bought. He’ll mention it to him and ask him to stop doing that. If they player doesn’t improve that with extra training or just while he is on the field then, he is sold. It’s not on Guardiola to be out there 1v1 after training sessions to help them improve certain skills or remove certain BAD HABITS. Managers simply don’t have time for that at the highest level. He asks the coaches to provide them with videos where they committed the mistakes or where the quality needs to improve for reference.”
When I heard that, I remembered a couple of interviews I watched for Guardiola where he complained about Rodri’s movement. Pep Guardiola said on Rodri’s development:
“We’ve tried to help him to understand the game, especially what the holding midfielder has to do. Last season he moved too much. The holding midfielder has to be there, don’t move.”
“The holding midfielder sometimes need five touches, sometimes one, sometimes three and now he plays (with) this rhythm that helps our game.”
To simplify this let’s talk about Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial as an example. Martial and Rashford basically try the same thing over and over vs defenders. In Rashford’s case, it made defenders read him easily. In Martial's case, he just never developed the runs that a striker needs to make a goal scoring opportunity for himself or be in a position to receive a goal scoring opportunity.
Now as a coach, you look at both of them and say they’ll need to widen their skillset. It’s a bad habit to repeat the same thing over and over because not every situation is the same — especially true with Rashford against low blocks.
The coaches will then sit Rashford and Martial down and say: “Rashford you need to work on being less predictable vs low blocks. Stop trying to dribble through traffic and taking shots from impossible angles. Also Rashford, if you want to play out wide, you need to track back.” — Something a lot of United forwards stopped doing this season after developing it under Solskjær. They reverted back to their bad habits.
Continuing on…Martial you need to make runs into the 6 yard box, for a striker that plays for a big club you never do that and that’s damning. You need to develop that to be a great number 9.” Something along those lines.
From this point forward, it’s on the player to go out and work on these points, drag a coach after training to help and ask him what you need to do. Ask United to provide you with an extra a coach on your own time, whatever you need to do to help you develop your skills further and be more effective to your team.
And from the players’ interviews you can tell if they were given these instructions or not sometimes. They sometimes spill it. Take Martial's interview after his first professional hattrick for example, he basically admitted that Solskjær was on his case with his movement in the box. Same with Rashford.
“The manager will be happy with that goal”, referencing what Solskjær said about his forwards needing to be in the box to get scrappy goals and break their noses.
This was evidence that the coaches at United were asking these players to work on their bad habits and develop new ones — especially in the case of the two players we spoke about as they are key players to the way United played. When it seemed that Rashford and Martial weren’t going to develop these key points, United were linked with Grealish (left sided creator vs low blocks) and then went out and got Cavani (an excellent off the ball runner in and around the box). Coincidence? I think not. However, the Grealish signing never materialized and Cavani lasted a season and that’s on the recruitment but that’s another topic.
In any case, what Guardiola and the coaches talked about ties in well with how teams’ playing style and systems usually collapse on its head when multiple key players are injured and the club doesn’t have a like for like replacement.
For instance, the way Liverpool collapsed losing Matip and Van Dijk and having to put Fabinho as a CB thus losing their midfield anchor. The way Chelsea’s season got derailed when their fullbacks got injured earlier in the season. The way City collapsed vs Liverpool in the FA Cup last Saturday for resting Ederson and other key players. The way Arsenal looked like a mid table team when they lost Tierney, Partey, Tomyasu and Saka to injuries. These key players are fundamental to the style and they way the team fit due to their traits (habits). If you put in a player that doesn’t fit and provide the same habits, it collapses.
Manchester United have too many players with bad habits. Even the experienced players are developing some bad habits. To see Nemanja Matić — an experienced PL winning DM — overcommit like an amateur, and it was not the first time, was really alarming and made it all clear. He is picking up Fred and McTominay’s bad habits. These two are a whole other story — especially the latter. The article has enough examples so we will not cover them or else it will be a book.
Moving on, the attack on United player’s mentality and willingness to fight for the shirt is understandable but that’s not the issue. The issue is the construction of this team. If you try to put a certain puzzle with pieces from different other puzzles by force, you’ll damage the correct puzzle pieces and the wrong pieces as well. This is what is happening to United’s players, they are puzzles pieces that don’t fit together but we are trying to fit them together by force and that’s damaging them.
Look at Elanga in the Liverpool goal above. He was a new puzzle piece added by Rangnick and it is slowly getting damaged instead of developing and fitting in nicely. Why? The forwards and the midfield he plays with don’t all fit each other. I don’t want any of the other pieces (academy players) damaged until the team is a closer fit to each other than what we are having right now. United should stop paving the way for bad habits to creep in from the first team to the future generation of Manchester United. Stop the rot.